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The Early Film Business in London, 1894-1914

Birkbeck, University of London



The Mayor of London’s Office has recently published an inquiry into cinema provision in the capital, showing how uneven this is across the boroughs. Now the Centre’s London project will show for the first time in detail how the moving picture industry emerged during its first twenty years, within the area which saw its most explosive development. An important feature of our study will be the correlation of knowledge about exhibition as well as production, and the emergence during this period of distribution as a distinct sector of the trade.

By mapping the growth of this dynamic new industry and entertainment medium, year by year, it will become possible to trace for the first time how moving pictures were shaped by the economic and social geography of the capital – and how they in turn helped shape the ‘imperial metropolis’ of Edwardian London. Such a realization has been largely missing from the accounts of London’s historians, beyond a token acknowledgment of the spread of ‘super cinemas’. But film was already an important business, transforming lives and fortunes for a decade before these appeared.

It has also been missing in any systematic form from the work of British film historians, ever since Rachael Low drew attention to the wide disparity of contemporary estimates of the number of cinemas as long ago as 1948. Most studies since have concentrated instead on the work of individual producers, or on pervasive aspects of exhibition such as the shift from music halls and ‘penny gaffs’ to purpose-built cinema halls. As a result, we have only an impressionistic view of how production and exhibition actually developed during the period up to 1914 – a period that was crucial in witnessing Britain’s early lead in both production and exhibition decline, to the point where foreign suppliers were the majority suppliers to a burgeoning exhibition sector by 1914.

The study’s methodology will involve collation and evaluation of existing published materials, including the early film trade press, and major works of synthesis such as Low, Sadoul and Barnes, as well as sampling of contemporary newspaper and ephemera sources. A second phase will be the study in depth of selected areas of London, using local history archives, to determine through ‘micro studies’ the pattern production and exhibition development, together with associated factors such as transport and housing density. Where were cinemas created? And how did audiences reach them? Why did studios move and how did they develop, as production became more elaborate.

We plan to present the result of the study in detailed database form, but also visually and accessibly, enabling trends to be seen, year by year, and compared. There will be issues of coverage and of what attention should be paid to the parallel development of other forms of mechanised or ‘mass’ entertainment, such as music hall, theatre, dance halls, etc. A series of seminars will convened during late 2004 to canvass expert opinion on these matters; and also to identify likely members of our Advisory Panel.

Publication and dissemination of the study will be as important as the data collection and analysis, since it will inform the work of economic and social historians for beyond the field of Film Studies, and may well be of interest to practitioners working with archives, local museums, ‘knowledge centres’, and in strategic planning. We plan to mount a public exhibition based on the study, as well as on-line access to its findings and other forms of publication.


Early central London exhibition venues:

Top: The Alhambra Music Hall, Leicester Square (site of the present Odeon), where Robert Paul exhibited his 'Animatographe' from 1896-7.

Below: The Egyptian Hall, Picadilly, in 1902

Both photos reproduced from John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1987

Research team:

Professor Ian Christie
Project Director

Dr Luke McKernan
Senior Research Fellow

Simon Brown
Senior Research Fellow

Jonathan Davis
Research Advisor


Professor Ian Christie
AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies
Room 102
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

020 7631 6196




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Last modified 6 October, 2005 ; web@bftv.ac.uk